February 9, 2017

Clothing design evolves from hobby to opportunity

Gertrude Sofia Suokko, of Woodstock, models some of the clothing she designs and markets. Photos by Glenn Suokko.


WOODSTOCK — Entrepreneurs find their callings in every industry, not just high tech. Working with fine fabrics and a Bernina sewing machine, Gertrude Sofia Suokko, 22, is following a path that might be considered part of the growing maker movement.

Suokko is owner and designer of Sofia, which offers original clothing designs, handmade in Vermont.

“Sofia grew out of a lifelong love of designing and making clothes,” said Suokko, a Woodstock resident.

Suokko said Sofia wear is easy, elegant, comfortable clothing. “Country chic” is one way she describes it, but her use of linen and silk (and velvets in winter) are indicators of a high-end audience and the price point that accompanies that. “I had made a couple of things for myself that I liked so I made a number of those in different sizes.” During that first year, she began getting orders for custom-made designs for special events like graduation, weddings and special parties.

“It’s not unusual for something I make to come out of something I need, like a dress to attend a holiday party. So I often end up wearing what I design,” Suokko said.

The maker movement is “the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers,” according to AdWeek’s definition, in which traditional artisans often merge their do-it-yourself skills with technology.

What began personal interest — making clothing for herself and friends — started looking like a business opportunity as word of mouth grew. After a few orders came in, Suokko decided to make a go of it in 2014. While friends were heading off to college or finding jobs, Suokko focused on two key things to launch her business: professional photography and a website.

Sofia began simply and continues that way. Recognizing the need to keep costs low as well as the difficulty of finding customers in Vermont’s small towns, Suokko tried a new approach. “I started selling at a farmers market where there were a lot more people.”

She began selling her signature clothing off the rack and getting orders for more, as well as more custom orders. And word of mouth continued to spread.

Over the course of several months, Suokko had two installations/exhibitions of Sofia wear at the Gallery at Simon Pearce in Quechee. The gallery provided the right kind of aesthetic to present the work. Suokko describes herself as “self-taught with sewing and design,” and credits her family with providing support and inspiration. Her father, Glenn Suokko, operates the Gallery at Simon Pearce and he is a designer, photographer, editor and writer, as well as a creative director for projects. He is frequently the photographer for Sofia photo shoots. Her mother, Ann Billings Suokko, taught her sewing early on and provided her with a sewing machine. “I have my mom’s Bernina. It’s very simple, it’s steel. A really good little machine. She got it when she was about my age.”

Suokko also talked about how her mother’s artistic sensibility, infused into so many aspects of their home life, is an inspiration. Suokko has deep roots in Vermont going back generations and is one of the eight grandchildren of Judge Franklin Swift Billings Jr. (deceased) and Pauline (Polly) Richardson Gillingham.

With the gallery installation successfully completed, Suokko is looking forward to a popup show of her line of Sofia wear, along with two other artist producers, on March 3 at Hermit Thrush Brewery. The brewery is known for its sour beers and will be offering tastings during the event, to be held in conjunction with Gallery Walk in Brattleboro.

Sofia got a boost near the year end with an order from Oona’s Vintage and Modern in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. New owner Marianna Pease plans to continue carrying vintage clothing and is adding a few contemporary designers, both men’s and women’s clothing. The store has been there since the 1970s. “She’s done a great job!” said Suokko, adding, “It’s nice to work with a smaller, independent store. You know the people there.”

Suokko designed new dresses using velvet fabric for a rich “Christmassy look.” Sales were a success and Oona’s has ordered new Sofia spring clothing.

“I’m learning as I go what works and what doesn’t,” Suokko said. “I’ll continue working with the store in Cambridge. It’s kind of a tough market in Vermont where (the population) is a smaller and an older one.”

In addition to her sewing, Suokko is currently taking online classes. She’s not quite sure what the future holds.

“I’m still so young and a year seems like a long time,” Suokko said. “I could wind up going to college or trying to grow Sofia where there’s a better market. I loved growing up here though and it will always be home.”

Learn more at www.sofiawear.com, or on Instagram: @sofiawear.


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